DVD Reviews – ‘Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet’ and the Czech New-Wave Classic ‘Who Wants to Kill Jessie?’

     November 1, 2006

Reviews by Nicole Pedersen

If you are a fan of arty European flicks and live in the Midwest, then you’re probably familiar with Facets Multimedia. The Chicago based film collective/video store/theatre is the proud owner of one of the most impressive collections of rare, out of print and esoteric films in the nation. Founded as a non-profit multi-media preservation group in 1975, Facets has since expanded into a mail-order and on-line video rental source, offering over 60,000 titles most of which you can bet are not available from Netflix. Called “the best video store on planet Earth” by LA Weekly, Facets is like that great Art House Cinema disaffected college students are always frequenting in the movies, albeit one where you can bring DVDs home with you after the credits roll.

Even if you are familiar with the Facets store or website, you may not know that they recently began offering DVDs for sale under their own label called Facets Video Exclusives. Currently boasting exclusive distribution rights to over 500 titles, the Facets Video line of films is incredibly diverse, concentrating on foreign, cult and documentary films. Two of their most recent offerings (both available for sale on October 31st) are Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet and the Czech new-wave classic Who Wants to Kill Jessie?

Hamlet

Although the film world is over-ripe with versions of Hamlet, the 1964 Russian language adaptation by director Grigori Kozintsev is one of the finest I’ve encountered. Anyway, it sure beat the hell out of watching Mel Gibson and Ethan Hawke brood their way through Shakespeare’s classic Danish tragedy. Based on a translation by Russian poet Boris Pasternak (Doctor Zhivago), Kozintsev’s Hamlet mixes just the right moody tone with an easy, abbreviated text to create a cinematic Hamlet that is both riveting and easily accessible.

In the Western World, film versions of Hamlet are usually vanity projects. Look, I’m the greatest actor who ever lived! (Olivier in 1948) Or, Look! I’m not just an action star! (Gibson in 1990) While I have little doubt that Kozintsev’s Hamlet follows the same pattern, the fact that none of the actors ever rose to prominence outside of Soviet cinema allows American audiences the chance to enjoy Hamlet as it was meant to be: unfettered by the overwhelming personalities of its stars.

Another, more pedestrian, reason this Hamlet registered with me was that its Russian dialogue was subtitled. I confess that as well as I know the play, while watching English-language versions of Hamlet onscreen I have often lost some of the subtext due to that old iambic pentameter. It may not be cool to admit, but being able to read the lines allowed my brain to enjoy the film in a way that the original Shakespearean dialogue never has. Free from having to translate, for myself, the sometimes cumbersome text, I was finally able to follow a version of Hamlet from start to finish without hitting the pause button.

Grigori Kozintsev, a contemporary of Eisenstein, filmed his Hamlet in black and white, set to a haunting score by Shostakovich. The spare sets are filled with creeping shadows and stark imagery perfectly compatible with the story of madness and revenge. One of the most beautiful shots comes early on, when the ghost of Denmark’s murdered King appears to Hamlet, towering over the turrets of the nearby castle, cape blowing ominously behind him. Although actor Innokenti Smoktunovsky overplays Hamlet’s horror just a tad, the scene is still a great example of everything that this Hamlet gets right: atmosphere, mood and tone.

Running 140 minutes, Kozintsev’s Hamlet is the perfect length. While Pasternak has been criticized for his over-simplified translation, line faithful versions have the unfortunate habit of putting audiences to sleep (I’m talking to you Kenneth Branagh). By cutting down on extraneous dialogue and concentrating on the powerful emotion of the play, the Russian Hamlet strikes the perfect balance between traditional Shakespeare and modern cinema. If you are a Hamlet buff, this is one to own.

Who Wants to Kill Jessie?

Also hailing from the Kruschev-era Communist cinema, but striking a dramatically different tone, is the sci-fi comedy Who Wants to Kill Jessie? This surreal 1966 work is the type of film Ed Wood might have made if he had been working with either talent or a budget.

Based in modern-day Prague, a female scientist is up for a Nobel Prize for her work in dream studies. She has invented a machine that lets her view the dreams of her patients. With one injection she can subsequently remove the negative elements contained therein. The practical purposes appear to be the creation of a more focused worker, one of the only times that Communist philosophy intrudes upon this otherwise charming farce. Her engineer husband, meanwhile, has become obsessed with a popular comic book called Who Wants to Kill Jessie?, not because of its voluptuous heroine but due to her character’s invention of a pair of anti-gravitational gloves with which he hopes to advance his lack-luster career.

After a weekly sexual rendezvous, the doctor discovers her husband dreaming about the animated Jessie and becomes insanely jealous. She decides to negate the image of the animated vixen (played by Playboy cover girl and Brigitte Bardot wannabe Olga Schoberova) before she realizes that her serum has some very unusual side-effects. The unwanted dream elements do not simply disappear they become manifested in the dreamer’s waking life. So when Jessie and the two comic goons chasing her (an evil superman and a trigger-happy cowboy) appear in the couple’s apartment and begin acting out their scripted destinies upon the streets of Prague, the boundaries between fiction and reality become blurred for everyone who encounters them.

Written and directed by Vaclav Vorlicek, Who Wants to Kill Jessie? is a pleasure from start to finish. The humor is both bizarre and occasionally racy. Take the early dream experiment where a cow is the subject. Are we really supposed to believe that an animal dreams of being serenaded by musicians while lounging inside a hammock? And then there are the sly references made by the doctor that “It’s Thursday,” meaning it’s the night for her to be sexually serviced, no matter who might object to performing the duty. The cleverest site gags are the comic-strip word bubbles that appear above the apparition’s heads once they materialize in the real world. These word balloons pop-up in front of people’s faces and must constantly be turned to be read due to their two-dimensional proportions.

I had never heard of Who Wants to Kill Jessie? before I received this DVD, but it is clear that many filmmakers have. The idea of dreams merging into reality has become a popular theme in films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and the recent the Science of Sleep. And then there is the whole comic-book characters come to life motif. Movies as disparate as Cool World, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Secret Lives of Altar Boys have all dabbled in that particular fantasy with varying degrees of success. While Who Wants to Kill Jessie? may not be as polished or as artistically arresting as some of these later films (indeed, its black and white “special effects” occasionally border on the ridiculous) it deserves recognition for at last providing proof that those trapped behind the iron curtain enjoyed the sexual revolution and a good joke just as much as the rest of the world.

Audio/Video/Extras

While Facets is well-known for the breadth of their catalog, their Facets Video Exclusive sales line is not yet known for its DVD’s technical presentation. Neither Hamlet nor Who Wants to kill Jessie? has been digitally enhanced and many of the print’s original scratches and fuzz are still in evidence. Likewise the film soundtracks no Dolby, no surround sound here, the Facets Video line is just bare bones at this point. Inclusion of a Facets “Cine-Notes” collector booklet is included with each disk, but for $29.95 a pop, a film connoisseur might wish for a little more.

Final Words

Facets Video, despite already offering over 500 hard to find or out-of print films for sale on DVD, is just starting out. Their presentation isn’t the sharpest and their extras are non-existent, but give them some time. Coming from a company that reveres off-beat cinema as much as Facets does, I have no doubt that their sales line will eventually compete with the Criterion Collection for customers with an art house bent. While both Kozintsev’s Hamlet and Who Wants to Kill Jessie? are, to me, great starts, if they could only get the license for Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains I would swear allegiance to Facets forever.

Watch Now
Around The Web

Latest News